As readers know, the exhibition, Benin - Kings and Rituals: Royal Arts from Nigeria, which started in Vienna, in 2007, went on to Paris and Berlin, was opened in Chicago, on 10 July and will be there until 21 September 2008.
For various reasons, including the fear of litigation and judicial attempts to seize some of the Benin bronzes, only some 220 objects will be displayed in Chicago compared to some 300 objects in Berlin. The bad consciences of some of the holders of these objects seem to have been activated by the previous protests in Chicago and the discussions on the illegality and illegitimacy of their possession. Hence some owners were not willing to let their artefacts cross the Atlantic to the USA where judges are quick to order seizure of artworks which are alleged to have been stolen or dubious provenance.
A 40 page catalogue specifically made for the Chicago exhibition, Benin: Royal Arts of a West African Kingdom, does not appear to be ready yet but will highlight 22 masterpieces from Benin art and includes as essay by the curator, Kathleen Bickford Berzock. As we have mentioned in various articles, the 535 page catalogue edited by Barbara Plankensteiner for the exhibition in Vienna, Paris and Berlin is a masterwork and should be also consulted by all those seriously interested in the arts of Benin. (1) The home page of the Art Institute of Chicago contains very useful information, including videos for the understanding of the exhibition and the arts and culture of Benin.
According to reports from Chicago, the opening of the exhibition was an impressive affair with the presence of the august Nigerian visitors as well as prominent Nigerians based in Chicago and Illinois.(2) Important Chicago officials such as the Mayor were present as well as Reverend Jesse Jackson, the African-American leader and activist. Edo singers and dancers as well as West African bands were also there to contribute to the occasion in African fashion by
providing music, an indispensable element in all African social activities.
Once again, the Benin Royal Family emphasized the need for the return of the artefacts which were stolen by the British in 1897. Princess Theresa Evbakhavbokun Erediauwa stated that she wants to build a secure museum in Benin. She and the Nigerian officials there asked for support in recovering the artefacts back through diplomatic channels. She wanted her family heirlooms back. These objects tell the story of her family.
Chief Esosa Godwin Eghobamien stated that the presence on the artworks in Benin would provide more and better context. Visitors to exhibitions where these objects are displayed often do not even know where Benin is and it would be better if they came to see where the artefacts were produced and thus see where civilization started in Africa. Kingsley Ehi, a real estate manager in Chicago and head of the Edo Arts and Cultural Heritage expressed the hope that these artefacts will soon be returned home.
Despite the sad story of the looting of the Benin bronzes, Prince Ademola Iyi-Eweka was impressed by the exhibition; he would like the artworks to be returned. The world should know that Benin has survived despite losing the war against the British. Diplomatic efforts are being made to secure the Benin bronzes but if that fails, steps would be taken to institute legal proceedings.
James Cuno, Director of the Art Institute of Chicago, responded to the please of the Nigerian representatives by saying that the Art Institute of Chicago which is not involved, only possesses half a dozen Benin works of art which are beautiful and important. The encyclopaedic museum allowed art works from various countries to be seen at one place and their interconnections. He was concerned by the trend towards consolidating art from a particular time or place in a single location. A dispersal of the objects enables more people to see the objects and also reduces the risk of calamity. Despite all this, Cuno stated that if there were a request for the return of the Benin objects, the Art Institute of Chicago would consider it seriously.
Cuno's statement must be considered as noteworthy of attention, coming from a man considered by man as the defender of the “universal museum”' a guru for all those who believe nothing should leave the British Museum and similar “universal museums.” (3) Cuno has made repeated attacks on those he calls “nationalist retentionists”for claiming ownership in ancient artefacts of ancient peoples with whom they have nothing in common except that they occupy the same territory as the ancient civilizations.
The report on Cuno's statement is sketchy and we do not have his exact words. We do not know whether he repeated his usual criticism of those claiming restitution in his abrasive style in presence of the Royal Family of Benin and the Nigerian officials. If the statements attributed to him are to be believed, then Cuno has made a small but significant shift in his stand. He did not dismiss outright such claims but is willing to consider such claims. Willingness to consider does not imply acceptance of the claim but it at least shows an admission that such claims may be valid in some cases.
We do not have the full text of Cuno's statement and may never have it since it appears to be the policy or practice of this exhibition not to publish the full text of statements made at the opening. I still have not seen any text of statements made in Vienna, Paris or Berlin. This is an interesting practice in a scholarly matter.
We hope that when Cuno says he will consider the matter when a request is made, he is suggesting that so far no request has been made. The Nigerians have repeatedly in Vienna, Berlin and Chicago made it clear that they want their artefacts back. What else must they do?
We have shown in several articles that there is no legal requirement for a formal demand. If the Art Institute is willing to consider returning some of the Benin bronzes but feels that the Institute's regulations or some binding law would require written demand, he should in good faith, inform the Nigerians about this requirement and the relevant procedure. He should not leave it to the Nigerians to beat about the bush. Any other approach would seem to be merely delaying tactic. Cuno as well as the Nigerians are interested in clearing this matter if the co-operation he hopes for is to be fruitful.
A goodwill gesture by the Art Institute of Chicago would be an encouragement to those holding hundreds of Benin bronzes to come forward and make their indispensable contribution. Despite statements by a mischievous director of a famous American museum, neither this writer nor any of those arguing for restitution are suggesting that all Benin objects be returned to Benin. We are only suggesting that it is time that, for example, the British Museum which allegedly holds 1000 pieces and the Ethnology Museum, Berlin, which admittedly has 800 pieces could each afford to return some pieces each. The nightmare of the museum directors that they may one day find their museums emptied of all their African objects is a figment of the troubled imagination of those who have not attempted to understand the position of others.
Discussions in Nigeria on the restitution question, in view of the Chicago exhibition, are concerned with the lack of progress in the process of recovery (4). Comparisons have been made with the spectacular return of a number of objects by US museums to Italy. It is known that the Italians used both diplomatic negotiations, legal proceedings, including imprisonment of a curator of the Paul Getty Museum. In this context, one could also mention the success of another African country, Egypt, in recovering some 3000 objects in the last six years. The Supreme Council on Egyptians Antiquities, under the dynamic leadership of Zahi Hawass, publish their activities at their homepage and their objectives are made known to the public and all concerned.
In an article published in the Nigerian newspaper, The Guardian, it appears that the aim of the Nigerian Government at the moment is to make an inventory of Nigeria's stolen artefacts. The Minister of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation is reported to have disclosed that a committee will be set up to make an inventory of Nigeria's artefacts within and outside the country. In this connection, it is recalled that the Minister was reported to have referred to the establishing of such an inventory in his speech in February, at the opening of the Benin exhibition in Berlin. Despite all efforts, we have not been able to secure a copy of the text of that statement.
With regard to an inventory of stolen Nigerian artefacts abroad, it should be stated that with regard to the Benin bronzes, the catalogue prepared by Barbara Plankensteiner for the exhibition in Vienna, Paris and Berlin, contains information sufficient for the identification of the locations and owners of the Benin objects. Philip J. C. Dark, in his study, “Benin Bronze Heads: Styles and Chronology”, identified 6500 Benin objects in some 77 places, mostly museums.(5) Similar publications and information on other Nigerian arts, such as those of Ife and Nok are easily available. We know for sure that some Nok objects are in the musée du quai Branly, in Paris, and are there with the consent of Nigeria, after they had been illegally acquired by the French.
A complete inventory of Nigerian artefacts inside and outside the country appears to be more than a Herculean task the utility of which should be carefully considered. Most of the countries than have recently recovered stolen arts do not seem to have made such an inventory but proceeded as and when information became available.
However one looks at the issue of restitution, it is clear that the Queen Idia hip mask means more to Africans and Nigerians than to Europeans and the British. Which European derives inspiration or hope from the African Queen-mother? Indeed, most Europeans are not even aware that there are so many African Queens and Kings held against their will in European and American museums. If the European museum directors do not understand this, they should stop talking about heritage of mankind. What kind of heritage is this which allows one side to high-jack for hundreds of years the religious, ritual and cultural icons of the other?
If the Art Institute of Chicago finally decides to return a Benin bronze, quite diplomacy would be given a great boost. If nothing comes out of cooperation with such institutions, the Nigerians must seriously re-examine their position and methods so far.
In Chicago, stolen Benin artefacts on parade
Tuesday, July 01, 2008
By Tajudeen Sowole
AS the waiting game continues in the effort to retrieve stolen African cultural objects, a distraction may have crept in under the disguise of collaboration with the 'keepers' to promote the artefacts.
The latest development in this regard is the exhibition of about quarter of a million works of Benin origin made in brass, ivory and coral, scheduled to open at the Art Institute of Chicago, U.S on July 10, and ends on September 21, 2008.
The exhibition, Benin: Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria is a tour-show which took off at the famous Ehhnologisches Museum, (Museum of Ethnology) Berlin, Germany on February 7 till May 25, 2008.
The event being funded by a U.S based NGO, Sara Lee Foundation, according to information from the organisers is a "groundbreaking exhibition of 220 works in brass, ivory and coral and serves as the sole U.S venue" for the tour show.
Surprisingly, supports for the two exhibitions came from the royal house of Benin as well as the National Commission for Museum and Monuments, NCMM, Abuja. The Art Institute of Chicago stated: "Benin-Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria is an exhibition of the Museum f�r V�lkerkunde Wien-Kunsthistorisches Museum, in cooperation with the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria; the Ethnologisches Museum-Staatliche Museen zu Berlin; the Art Institute of Chicago; and the Mus�e du Quai Branly, Paris."
When the show opened in Berlin five months ago, the organisers, in the brochure, stated thus: "There can be no doubt that the audience granted in 2006 by the reigning king of Benin,
Omo N'Oba Erediauwa CFR, was a highpoint in the preparations for the exhibition because it then became possible to receive objects on loan from the royal house for the first time in
an exhibition outside Nigeria. In addition, we received generous support from and enjoyable cooperation with the National Commission for Museums and Monuments and its General
Director, Dr. O.J. Eboreime, who describes the Benin exhibition in his foreword as probably one of the most outstanding cultural events of the decade to take place outside Nigeria in this field."
Meanwhile, back home, during the ministerial press briefing by the Honourable Minister of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, Prince Adetokunbo Kayode, on Thursday, June 26, 2008, at the National Theatre, Iganmu, Lagos, taking inventory appears to be the government's next project as regards the nation's controversial artefacts, among others.
Under the theme, Leveraging Economic Growth Through Tourism, Culture and Value Re-Orientation, the minister, while reeling out several "achievements" of various agencies of the ministry disclosed that a committee will be set up to take inventory of the nation's artefacts within and outside the country.
While Nigeria is currently attempting to take inventory of its carted away artefacts, countries around the world, even in Africa, are already achieving restitution. In April 2005, part of a 1,700-year old 200-tonne column looted by Italy nearly 70 years ago was returned to its original location in Ethiopia.
Italian troops had seized the obelisk in 1937 and took it to Rome where it has remained despite a 1947 UN agreement to return it to Ethiopia. But the historic return in 2005 makes the difference.
However, it did not take long for the adage: 'what you sow is what you reap' to take effect. Towards the end of last year, Italy was rewarded by law of natural justice as a 4th-Century B.C. marble statue, Griffins Attacking A Fallen Doe illegally exported to the U.S was returned to Italy by the Los Angeles based J. Paul Getty Museum.
Contemporary works of Italian origin in various locations in the U.S like the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and Princeton University's Art Museum were also returned with the fourth century B.C sculpture.
Many of the items, it was revealed, had been bought by the museums in good faith after they were illegally transported from Italy. But Italy's unrelenting legal battle to retrieve the works paid off at the end of the day.
Last March, an exhibition, Nostoi: Returned Masterpieces held at the Palazzo del Quirinale, Rome, which started in December 2007 and organized by the Italian government came to a close after it featured the 68 retrieved works.
In the case of Nigeria, the intention of the government to support an exhibition where its stolen creative outputs would be displayed has become subject of debate in the arts community.
Responding to the issue of the role of government in the said Berlin and Chicago exhibitions, the Sitting-in-for Director General of NCMM, Ochi Achinivu who spoke with The Guardian shortly after the ministerial briefing argued that there is nothing wrong in government's support of such events or similar ones. " for the federal government to support any event aimed at promoting the nation's culture anywhere in the world, I think, it is a good idea," he said. While declining to make direct comment on the Chicago and Berlin exhibitions, Achinivu however warned that, "collaboration, support and any other persuasive mean available is better than confrontation in effort to have these objects returned".
Some of the artefacts, illegally left its original location and later acquired by the Ethnologisches Museum from the British after the punitive expedition suffered by the Benin Kingdom as a result of the British invasion in 1897.
The museum was established on 12 December, 1873 specifically for the collection of cultural materials from the peoples of Africa and Oceania. According to the authority of the museum, "several German museums lent their Benin art works to the exhibition."
Contents of the 40-page catalogue of the Art Institute of Chicago exhibition "highlights 22 of the exhibition's masterworks." Curated by Kathleen Bickford Berzock, some of the works include 18 century pieces, Iyoba, Head of Queen Mother, Oba Eresoyen's Stool, Plaque of Oba Esiegie on Horseback, and Altar Group (Aseberia) with Oba Akenzua I.
For serious nations that truly desire restitution of their cultural and religious objects from anywhere in the world, UNESCO's Intergovernmental Committee For Promoting The Return Of Cultural Property To Its Countries Of Origin Or Its Restitution In Case Of Illicit Appropriation ICPRCP has a structure in place. At its fourteenth session, held in Paris, June 2007, the 22-member committee, currently including five African countries, Angola, Burkina Faso, Egypt, Libya, Niger and Zimbabwe came up with what it called Draft Rules Of Procedure On Mediation And Conciliation.
Article 1 of the document while saying that the committee requests for the return or restitution of cultural property, "as defined under Article 3 of the Statutes," also explains in Article 10 under the heading conclusion of the Procedure. The document recommends that a mediation or conciliation procedure shall be deemed concluded when a settlement that all parties deem binding has been reached.
Other options the draft recommended included "when all of the Parties concerned consent in writing to deem the procedure concluded or when all Parties have set a time limit, within which no settlement has been reached."
The document explains further that the parties shall promptly inform the chairman of the committee, who shall inform the Director-General of UNESCO and the members of the committee at the next session, of any settlement reached or procedure concluded without a settlement. It however warned that the chairman of the committee shall dismiss any procedure that has been concluded without a settlement, while the issue remains before the committee.
Fundamentally, UNESCO recommends that: "Before bringing a case before the intergovernmental committee, the requesting state must initiate bilateral negotiations with the state in which the requested object is located. Only when such negotiations have failed or are suspended can the case be brought before the committee."
However, how much of these several opportunities offered by UNESCO has been taken in Nigeria's pursuit of return or restitution of its monumental cultural heritage under hostage abroad is unknown. Achinivu, again, requested that he needs time to make any official statement on this and that it is too early for him as a new appointee to make any definite statement as regards government's position.
Example of restitution in other part of the world in recent times include a stolen collection of over 90 artefacts dating from more than 8,000 years ago and returned from Germany to Greece, last October. The artefacts believed to be of the Neolithic-era were stolen by armed burglars from a private collection in Larissa, central Greece, in 1985. The materials were said to have been seized by the German police later. After legal tussle initiated by the Greek Government, a Munich court ruled in August 2007 that the artefacts be returned to Greece.
The artefacts, which include stone and pottery; statuettes, tools and tiny vases are said to be as old as between 6500 and 5300 B.C. Sources from the Greek government said the objects have their place of origin in the central Thessaly region of the country where Greece's most important Neolithic settlements have been excavated.
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